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Convention is trying to harness tea party spirit

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — As they opened their inaugural national convention here, Tea Party advocates from across the country declared that they would turn the grass-roots anger that burst onto the streets a year ago into real political power, wielding money and campaign infrastructure as well as sheer energy.

Organizers of the convention announced Friday that they were forming a political action committee to raise money and provide political consulting and campaign management for Tea Party-approved candidates. The PAC, an offshoot of a newly incorporated 501c4 called Ensuring Liberty, will seek to raise $10 million this year to spend in races in the 2010 congressional elections.

To start, it will back conservative challengers in five races in the South. In the most highly visible, organizers want to run a candidate against Sen. Blanche Lincoln, an Arkansas Democrat who has been under fire for her votes on health care legislation. In the coming weeks, organizers said they would identify 15 or so races for Tea Party-backed challengers.

"Let us not be naive here," said Mark Skoda, leader of the Memphis Tea Party and a spokesman for the convention, who said he would be president of the PAC. "The notion of holding up signs does not get people elected."

In sessions here, organizers also urged fellow advocates to focus on getting like-minded conservatives elected in primaries in the next several months. And they outlined plans to take over the Republican Party from the ground up by having Tea Party conservatives fill local Republican committee slots with the power to decide which candidates to endorse and finance.

Skoda said the Ensuring Liberty PAC would choose candidates based on their fidelity to what he called the "first principles": less government, fiscal responsibility, lower taxes, states rights and national security.

Six hundred advocates had gathered for the convention at the Gaylord Opryland here, a small fraction of the millions that Tea Party advocates say turned out for protests over the last year. Many not attending said they were put off by the ticket price to the convention — $549, plus fees, hotel and transportation. (About 500 people, organizers said, bought $349 tickets to hear Sarah Palin, who is to be the keynote speaker on Saturday night.)

c.2010 New York Times News Service